Multi-candidate elections are tricky affairs. Most often they are seen in primary elections (but sometimes in general elections too, when there are strong third party contenders, in non-partisan elections, or in states like Louisiana that have run-off systems), multi-candidate campaigns are those elections where there are more than two candidates in the running… that is, where you are facing more than one opponent.
Why are these campaigns tricky? First, because it’s hard to define the question of the election (and thus your message) when you’re facing two or more very different opponents. Second, because attacks can come from all sides. Lastly, because resources are even more tight than usual: fundraising, volunteers, media coverage and more are all being spread over many candidates, instead of just two.
Here are two tried and true strategies for winning multi-candidate elections:
1. Embrace the Challenge
Many candidates, when faced with multiple opponents, whither under the pressure and decide to run the race against just one of their opponents. They pick the candidate (other than them) who is most likely to win or be a serious contender, and act as if that person is their only opponent.
This strategy can work, but only if the other candidates (the ones you aren’t focusing on) aren’t that strong. If there are many strong candidates in the field, it’s better to embrace the challenge, and devise your campaign strategy with all of your serious opponents in mind.
One great way to do this is by publically lumping all of your opponents together, and then setting yourself apart from them. Make it you versus the group in the minds of the voters. This can be done in almost every circumstance, even if your opponents are from all different political parties.
Some examples could be:
You are the conservative candidate – they are the liberals (or vice versa).
You are the fiscally responsible candidate – they are the tax and deficit proponents.
You care more about the safety of the children in your town – they care more about big businesses.
You are qualified to be commander-in-chief – they are not qualified.
You have unique experiences to bring to the table – they are all career bureaucrats.
As you can see from the above examples, this tactic is about setting up YOU vs. THEM in the voters’ minds, and designing your message around that proposition. For more information on designing a compelling message, read How to Craft Your Campaign’s Message.
2. Get out of the Gates Early
If you’re expecting a multi-candidate election, be sure you get out of the gates early and get your campaign started. The faster you can get your campaign looking and feeling like a serious effort, the better. There are two reasons why you want to get started early:
First, the earlier you start raising money , signing up volunteers, and gaining endorsements, the more difficult it will be for new candidates to jump into the race. People who are thinking about running for state senator will see that you’ve already raised $30,000 and put together a finance committee with some of the biggest names in the district on board, and think twice about throwing their hat in the ring.
The second reason to get started early is so that you can define the terms of the campaign. You want to be the one who sets the terms of the debate. If you’re running for town council and expect several other candidates to jump in, get out in front of the campaign and define the issues that matter in a way that favors you. Candidates who get into the campaign late will find it hard to catch up and keep up.
For example, if you’re a budget hawk who wants to trim your town’s spending, start talking about how out of control the town budget is, how many cuts can be made, what you’d do on your first day to rein in the budget. Make people understand how important the spending issue is. If you’re talking about it for three months (or even three weeks) before your first opponents jump into the race, you’re going to have a huge leg up, and it’s much more likely that they’ll have to play on your turf, at least for awhile.
Defining Your Message, Raising Money, Working the Grassroots… Winning Your Campaign
If you’re running for office (or thinking about running for office), be sure to check out Local Victory’s How to Win Any Election… a comprehensive guide to winning any campaign.
This kit includes complete information on getting ready to run, defining your message, fundraising, campaign communications, grassroots politics and more – it’s a 1,2,3 guide to winning your campaign.